Throughout my practice, I have explored content through many and varied subjects. Consistently, my main interest and enduring aim has been to identify the subtexts of America and what is going on under the surface. Much of this underlying story is revealed, in my opinion, in museums, not only by what is in their collections but by what is not. Particularly noteworthy is the lack of black figures, both artists and subjects. Considering the essential role of black people in the formation of America and the enormously rich contributions of black Americans, I find this to be one of the most disturbing, yet revealing mirrors of American life.
As a white male, I recognize the privilege that comes with my status and am keenly aware of the social blindness it can engender. In my late twenties, I was hired to teach painting to prison inmates through the Arts in Corrections program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Working in this major California maximum security prison was an eye-opening experience. I worked for several years with inmates at every level of convict – from lifers (murderers) to those who were convicted for other crimes. I came away from this experience four years later with a strange, uneasy feeling about the prison system and America’s general perception of inmates, crime and race.
James Baldwin, one of my favorite writers, said that the history of a people is never pretty. I would add to that: it is far uglier when a nation hides behind the notion of exceptionalism. This quintessentially American myth has stopped us in our tracks; it discourages inquiry into how this country really came to be and why we seem to be stuck in that not-so-pretty past. There can be no reconciliation for that which is not faced.
Consider the controversy around the removal of Confederate monuments, many of which were erected during the civil rights era as a bid to bolster white supremacy. The Confederacy lost the war and were charged as traitors before being pardoned, winning the narrative on how the South would go down in history. They turned racial domination and brutality into “legacy,” and the pathology of racial divide flourished after the Civil War and continues today.
This new body of work began in my later career. Up to that point, I had made scant few paintings with black people as subjects. Part of the reason for that was my trepidation about being a white artist painting black subjects and making perceptual missteps or offending anyone. I’m willing at this point to take that risk, to not remain silent, and to take a stand with others.
My fascination, along with art history, is this dominant narrative that, throughout America, keeps humming along like an air conditioner you no longer hear, but nonetheless, keeps doing its job until one day it breaks down. These paintings are one way I have to add to the discourse on this crucial topic.
Through beautiful and visually engaging imagery, I work to set the stage for a silence in honor of the dignity and strength of Black America.
Mark Beck 2020